Bringing the Economy Home

Bottom Rung: Two Idaho Workers Talk About Life On Low Wages

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

John was an IT director 10 years ago. Now he spends his workdays behind the register of a Boise store.

Wages are lower in Idaho than in nearly ever other state. That’s often chalked up to Idaho’s rural nature and low cost of living. But recently, the state has lost ground.

A federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that Idaho has the largest share of workers earning minimum wage in the country. And that share — 7.7 percent — has grown rapidly.

All this week, we’ll explain the trends that are playing out at the bottom of Idaho’s wage scale. Today, we’re asking: What is it like to earn minimum wage or close to it in Idaho? 

It can be difficult to find minimum wage earners who are willing to talk to a reporter. Supervisors at fast food chains and retail establishments turned me down. One worker decided against an interview after his boss threatened his job. Finally, I selected a stretch of road in Boise that’s lined with strip malls, restaurants and gas stations, and started talking to people.

Hailey, 19, agreed to answer my question. I agreed not to use her last name so that she wouldn’t risk trouble with her employer.

“Where I work, actually, it’s through a temp agency,” she explains. “We’re never hired on as full-time.”

Hailey is small, blonde and delicate looking, but she does hard work in the warehouse of a local charitable organization. She unloads trucks filled with donations, and spends a lot of time sorting used clothes. She doesn’t get benefits. Coworkers come and go. She’s stayed for a year, longer than most.

Asked what her salary pays for, she lists off the small rent payment she makes to her stepmother, plus groceries, gas, car insurance and her phone bill. Then she explains she also has to pay the costs of drug court. That’s the program she was funneled into more than a year ago, when she was addicted to prescription drugs and committed a felony.

“It’s an amazing program,” Hailey says. “It’s saved my life. But it’s an expensive program, and it’s one I have to pay for on my own.”

We’re talking at a picnic table outside a counseling facility where she attends classes and likes to spend time. I ask what her experience of work, so far, makes her think about work in general.

“Currently, it’s just a way to get by,” she says. “But what I hope for it to be in the future – I want to help other people. I want to make a difference. I want to feel like I’ve done something of meaning in this life.”

She wants to work with kids, and help them avoid what she’s been through. She’d like to start college in January. So far, she’s put away $300. She’ll have to keep saving: A single three-credit class at the College of Western Idaho costs $408.

A Life In Two Paths

Hailey’s story is one we might expect to hear in a series about low-wage workers. She’s young and aiming for a better life. But there are other stories, too. John is 52, a tidy dresser with an open smile. He works as a clerk at a small retail shop in Boise. As with Hailey, I agreed to not use John’s last name.

“My life’s kind of split into two distinct paths,” he says. “One of them was a military path that I did in the reserve components, and I served for 20 years. And the other path I took, on the civilian side, was more in a computer background – information technology.”

In 2003, he says, he was an IT director making $80,000 a year. Now, he makes between $7 and $8 an hour, and no benefits. To get by on that, he rents a room in a house. He can’t afford a car, so he rides his bike, or takes the bus.

John tells me he wound up in this position over the course of a decade. He was laid off, but got work with a web development company. When the recession hit, he was laid off again. He was already in debt. Before long, he lost his home and filed for bankruptcy.

John says he’s not unhappy; he says he’s on a “Zen-like journey.” But he’s realistic.

“If you’re working just to make ends meet, there is no real quality of life,” he says. “You’re working to satisfy some debt of some sort. It’s not an environment that lends itself to optimism, because you’re constantly worried about keeping your job and just making a living.”

John says his financial situation affects everything, even the friends he makes. “We call ourselves ‘the working poor,’ for lack of a better term,” he says, with a resigned laugh. That’s his social circle now, he tells me, not the “management types” he used to know.

“It changes,” he says. It’s a succinct description of life as he sees it.

His thinking has changed, too. He worries, now more than ever before, about the gap between people who have money and people who don’t.

“This imbalance that’s keeping people poor, it’s only going to go so far!” he exclaims. “You can only stretch that rubber band so far, and something’s going to snap!”

For John, there are better days ahead.  When he turns 60, he’ll start receiving his military retirement. He daydreams about moving to South America, and living better on less. But most low-wage workers don’t have that reprieve.

Over the next few days, we’ll ask: “Why?”  Why does Idaho have so many low-wage jobs? At least in part, the answers lie in Idaho’s shifting demographics, economic base and policy priorities.

When we checked in with John recently, he told us he’s been promoted to assistant manager.  That will mean $150 more in monthly income, and vacation benefits.


About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »